ZymoGenetics, Citing Two Patient Deaths, Builds Up Ammunition for Case Against Rival

Xconomy Seattle — 

Before it asked the FDA to yank a drug made by its chief competitor, King Pharmaceuticals, off the U.S. market, ZymoGenetics learned that physicians had attributed the deaths of two patients to bad reactions to the drug, says ZymoGenetics CEO Doug Williams.

I spoke with Williams this morning shortly after the Seattle biotech issued a statement saying that it has filed a formal citizen petition with the FDA, asking the agency to force Bristol, TN-based King to withdraw a rival treatment for surgical bleeding from the U.S. market. ZymoGenetics (NASDAQ: ZGEN) contends that King’s Thrombin-JMI product poses a risk of immune-system reactions that can lead to severe bleeding episodes, and even death.

ZymoGenetics has been trying to grab away King’s market share, primarily by arguing its drug is safer. The King product, which has been around for years, is the dominant drug used to control bleeding in an estimated 1 million surgeries a year in the U.S. It generated $255 million in U.S. revenues last year. But ZymoGenetics has sensed an opportunity to supplant King’s drug, because it is derived from cow’s blood, and therefore recognized as foreign by the immune system, which it says can lead to complications with repeated use. ZymoGenetics won FDA approval for its recombinant version of human thrombin, called Recothrom, in January 2008. Just as with insulin for diabetes, animal-derived products eventually lose in the marketplace when safer, genetically engineered human products come along to replace them, the company contends.

Yet ZymoGenetics it has struggled to capture much of the market for surgical bleeding drugs. It generated just $8.8 million in first-year sales—partly because physicians were unaware of the risks associated with the animal-derived product they had been using for many years, Williams says. Now the company hopes to change that, by asking the FDA to take a closer look at how to handle that risk from the cow-derived clotting agent.

“There are physicians using Thrombin-JMI without a clear understanding of its risks,” Williams says. “There are at least three better alternatives in the marketplace now, that don’t have the same risk profile.”

ZymoGenetics CEO Doug Williams

ZymoGenetics CEO Doug Williams

When reached by phone this morning, King Pharma’s vice president of investor relations, Jack Howarth, said the company has no comment.

The 31-page citizen petition, which I reviewed this morning, highlights 25 cases published by researchers that drew a link between cow-derived blood control treatments and bad immune-system reactions that led to severe complications, or death. One report by a physician to the FDA last October attributed a death to usage of Thrombin-JMI, and just this month, ZymoGenetics said it learned of a second case.

The prescribing information for Thrombin-JMI has carried the FDA’s strictest warning, called a “Black Box,” since 1996. It warns physicians of potentially dangerous immune reactions. But ZymoGenetics said few physicians seem aware of the risk, and keep using King’s product anyway. Now that ZymoGenetics’ genetically engineered version is on the market, along with two other products that use clotting proteins derived from human blood—Johnson & Johnson’s Evithrom and Baxter Healthcare’s Gelfoam Plus—there’s no longer any reason … Next Page »

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